© John Cheng

By Nick McCarvel

Exactly six months since the U.S. men’s gymnastics team was in the midst of competing at the Rio Games at last year’s Summer Olympics, the push for Tokyo 2020 begins officially with this weekend’s Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas.

Defending champion Sam Mikulak can’t wait to get back on the competition floor.

“I have always known that I wanted to go for Tokyo 2020,” he told USA Gymnastics in a phone interview last week. “I know how fast it goes between Olympic cycles. … I want to be the most balanced gymnast out there and come out on top.”

This coming weekend will feature over 80 gymnasts at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino who are all trying to land one of the 15 coveted spots on the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team for 2017.

The Winter Cup Challenge will help in determining those spots, as Mikulak and three of his Rio teammates headline the event, including Chris Brooks, Jake Dalton and Alex Naddour. Olympic alternates Akash Modi and Donnell Whittenburg are also set to compete, as is John Orozco, who made the Olympic team but had to withdraw after an ACL injury in July.

“I think a lot of (young gymnasts) see this year as a chance for them to break onto the scene because a couple of guys have left the national team,” Mikulak noted. “There will be some new up-and-comers for sure.”

Unlike in years past, members of previous year’s Olympic team are not guaranteed places on the U.S. National Team until August’s P&G Championships. This year, they must earn National Team Points on both days of competition to earn automatic berths to the national team.

 “When it comes to the older guys, it’s about focusing on getting that one point on both days to make the national team again,” Mikulak added.

At 24, Mikulak doesn’t see himself as one of the “older” guys yet, but with both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics behind him, he said he’s looking forward to passing his wisdom on to the crop of new gymnasts that will push for that 2020 team.

In the past few months – after the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions – Mikulak has carved out a new approach for himself and his gymnastics, one that he hopes will yield an individual medal at this year’s World Championships in Montreal in October.

“I was tired giving 100 percent 100 percent of the time,” he explained of 2016. “I did it for eight months and it was great to know that I’m capable of doing it, but it’s a life that you can’t do forever.”

He continued: “Maybe I took it a little too seriously. Maybe I was trying too hard? Perhaps, I made too many sacrifices and my life was overwhelmed by gymnastics a little bit. I’m trying to take the perspective of letting myself live a little. I’m not obsessing. I want to do gymnastics but do other things in my life, too.”

Mikulak helped the U.S. to a second straight fifth place finish in the Olympic team event, was seventh in the individual all-around as well as fourth and eighth, respectively, on the high bar and floor.

“I’m really happy how I performed there,” Mikulak said of Rio. “I hit 12 for 12. I made two finals. I got fourth place. I’m very, very close. I’m grateful for all of my opportunities because of the hard work that I’ve put in.”

Mikulak only took time off during the holidays following the completion of tour in early November, going home to California for Christmas, but then put his “nose to the grindstone” starting on January 1.

He is training all-around and trying to minimalize his deductions as much as possible. At Winter Cup, it will be less big skills, Mikulak said, and more about hitting “clean, simple sets.”

Mikulak also said he’s trying to be more efficient with his turns in practice: he’s focusing less on the number of turns he takes and more on the quality of each one. He said it’s all to protect his body.

“Gymnastics is exhausting, there’s no way around it really,” he said. “I’m trying to make every day count because I’m getting older so I need to be more efficient and prioritize my turns. It puts a little more pressure on every single turn, but … I know that if I do it over and over again then I can get hurt. It gives me that mental edge, I think. It’s about building a lot more muscle memory from great turns.”

World medalist Steven Legendre is also in the Winter Cup line-up, as is Eddie Penev, Marvin Kimble, Donothan Bailey, Sean Melton, Yul Moldauer and Kanji Oyama, all who have spent time on the senior national team.

Mikulak said that it’s up to the U.S. men to push one another to try and get to the next level internationally, having not won a team medal at the Olympics since 2008. The U.S. men won team bronze at the 2014 World Championships in Nanning, China.

“The more competitive we are, the better the top (U.S.) guys will be,” he said. “Everyone feels like they need to fight for their spot. No one can be complacent in this world of gymnastics. If you look at the rest of the world, no one else did a tour or took three months off. All the rest of the countries have been working harder than ever to get ready for the next year. I think they’re a little beyond us right now.”

That single focus has helped change Mikulak’s approach, however, and he hopes it frees him up in a variety of ways to find success when he’s in competition. There are trips home to California on the weekends, but also just leaving the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and being a normal 24-year-old, not watching and monitoring every single thing he eats.

The dividends, he hopes, will be evident in competition.

“It’s a little bit of a change of how I trained for Rio, but what I think what it does mentally and spiritually are more beneficial,” he said. “I’m happy with where I am in terms of living my life, as well. You know what? I’m just happy. That’s all there is to it.”